A 24-year-old Peruvian woman who has resorted to sex work to repay loans she took out to move to New Zealand is among a spate of South American immigrants being duped by job and visa scams.
The head of an organisation helping victims says she is aware of about 250 people from South American countries who have arrived here since the beginning of the year on work and visitor visas — many of whom are victims of scams promising jobs that lead to residency
The Peruvian woman borrowed close to $32,000 from gang-related loan sharks to pay an agent for an allegedly high-paying job and visa arrangements. After landing in New Zealand from Lima with just a visitor visa, the woman quickly realised there was no job and she had been scammed.
The woman’s South American family had thought she would be their ticket out of poverty, but they are now facing death threats after missing a payment of a loan amount that is increasing by the day. In desperation, the 24-year-old has turned to sex work - which is unlawful for migrants in New Zealand on temporary visas - to repay the debt.
Richard Owen, Immigration New Zealand’s (INZ) general manager of verification and compliance, said the agency was aware of the allegations and is investigating.
INZ has received reports that recruitment in countries like Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina is ongoing and up to 100 people more could be on the way here, duped into thinking there will be jobs waiting for them.
“We are extremely concerned about any reports of migrants paying for job offers as a pathway to residency,” Owen said.
“We take these allegations extremely seriously and will escalate them through the appropriate channels.”
Depending on visa type, migrants could either submit an application or be invited to apply by an accredited employer, although some applications such as working holiday or partnership visas do not require a job offer.
It is being claimed that some of these migrant workers are also being offered invitations by accredited employers who have “sold” their entitlements to non-accredited businesses.
In the past six months to June 20, INZ has granted 31 variation of conditions work visas for migrants coming from Argentina (18), Chile (eight), Colombia (four) and Peru (one) to release them from employment conditions they were originally bound to.
The Peruvian woman said she was promised a job paying $43 per hour to manage Spanish-speaking migrant workers at a construction company.
“We needed about $32,000 to pay for the visa, agent’s fee, job offer, flight and one month’s accommodation. But the agent promised that after one year, I could get residency and sponsor my parents and brother to move here too,” she said.
“The only way we could get that money was to borrow from illegal money lenders, who are linked to gangs in Lima. When I arrived in Auckland in May, there was no job, no accommodation, nothing.”
The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said gang members threatened to shoot her father after they missed their first payment.
“I couldn’t stop crying, and when I shared my story with a Chilean lady I met at the backpackers where I stayed, she introduced me to sex work,” she said.
“I am desperate, I don’t know what else to do. I want to go home to be with my family, but if I do that, then maybe all of us will be dead.”
Fernanda Penny, director of El Centro Kiwi NZ, says about 20 duped migrant workers have approached the organisation for help.
The centre has two licensed immigration advisers who are assisting with getting work visas and variations of conditions for these workers.
“The so-called agents appear credible because they recruit through government institutions such as the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, a national vocational training centre in Colombia, and the job offers are from an accredited employer,” Penny said.
Some arrive to non-existent jobs - others are being offered far fewer working hours than they were promised, she said.
Most migrant workers borrowed between $10,000 to $15,000 to come here, and fear for the safety of their families if they were to speak up against their employers or the agents.
Colombian Camilo Montañez Giraldo, 46, was promised a job as a construction technician with a pay rate of $27.76 per hour.
However, since he arrived on March 11, he has had only 12 days of work as a labourer and two days as a drywall technician. For eight days that he worked in Kerikeri, Giraldo claimed he was given just $15 per day for food.
Another Colombian, Jaime Alberto Caceres Perez, 40, was also granted a visa to work as a construction technician for the same company.
But he was offered work at a site two hours from where he lived and told to take another loan to buy a car from a dealer specified by the company. When he refused, the company sent him a warning letter for non-attendance at his job site.
Perez, who came on March 8, has since been granted a six-month migrant exploitation work visa.
Both men had to borrow money from family and friends for their move to NZ.
INZ is encouraging anyone who is a victim of a visa scam to report the matter to their local law enforcement agencies in their country of residence or the country where the scam occurred and copy the information to INZ as well as NZ Crimestoppers.
The agency said any New Zealand employer or entity affected should also report it to police or Crimestoppers.
Owen said prospective applicants can keep themselves safe by applying for a visa via INZ’s website directly and not through an intermediary.
They should also only use licensed immigration advisers or an exempt person such as a lawyer if they needed immigration advice.
“Anybody seeking to work in New Zealand needs to be very careful that they are not being tricked out of their money and falsely offered jobs,” Owen said.
“We advise people to protect themselves by checking with the companies involved to ensure any offers are genuine before handing over any money.”
He said people seeking to work in New Zealand should also be aware that INZ will decline an application for a work visa if the employment was offered as a result of payment in exchange for securing that offer of employment.
Lincoln Tan specialises in covering stories around diversity and immigration. He’s been a journalist at the Herald since 2006.